America Can Aid Syrians Without Military Intervention

FINANCIAL INTEREST DISCLOSURE: Nowrasteh has a paid job as immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute (since April 15, 2012), and formerly had a similar role at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

This post was originally published at the Huffington Post website here and is reproduced with the author’s permission.

The Syrian civil war has killed over 100,000 people and displaced as many as seven million — about one-third of Syria’s population. Russia’s offer to put Syria’s chemical weapons under international control may stop American military involvement, but the humanitarian crisis remains. The good news is military involvement isn’t necessary to help alleviate the humanitarian crisis. Instead, we can allow Syrian emigration to the U.S.

The number of refugees grows daily. Non-Muslim Syrians, who make up 13-to-15 percent of the population, are at particular risk. Christians, Druzes, and the non-religious face attacks from many rebel groups who are motivated by a violent interpretation of Sunni Islam. For instance, rebels from the extremist Jabhat al-Nusra rebel group recently conquered the Aramaic speaking Christian town of Maaloula — forcing most of the population to flee with only a handful of nuns and orphans left behind.

But Muslim Syrians are in grave danger as well. A mere 13 percent of Syrians — including President Bashar Assad and his government — are Shiites, compared to 74 percent who are Sunnis. Sunnis form the core of the rebellion, while Shiites generally support the government. Warring factions drawn along sectarian lines will extend and deepen the violence, killing non-combatants of all faiths in the cross-fire.

These conditions prompted a mass exodus from Syria, and it’s likely to continue. As the director-general of Sweden’s Migration Board, Anders Danielsson, has said: “The conflict in Syria has heated up, to put it mildly… we can assume that it’s not going to be resolved in the foreseeable future.”

Of the seven million displaced Syrians, two million have left the country altogether. So far, neighboring Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey have taken in more than 1.7 million of the refugees. Sweden has announced that it will grant permanent residency to the 14,700 Syrian refugees already there, as well as some subsequent arrivals. Germany has also decided to take in 5,000 Syrian refugees.

In contrast, in 2011 and 2012, the U.S. allowed just 374 Syrians to gain asylum status, while only 60 refugees were approved. The Obama Administration has announced plans to let in 2,000 refugees — but those are only promises. Syrians already in the U.S. are allowed to stay and work under Temporary Protected Status (TPS) — as are many Haitians, Somalis, and others whose home countries are devastated, but that doesn’t help those trying to flee their war-torn country.

The United States used to be the world’s safety net for refugees, especially religious ones. The Pilgrims fled the Netherlands, Irish Catholics escaped English oppression, Jews from Eastern Europe escaped pogroms, and Armenians fled genocide and war to settle in California. But then America changed its immigration laws in 1921, and the government shamefully turned away German Jews fleeing Nazi Germany and Chinese fleeing the Japanese invasion.

The United States could help avoid an even worse humanitarian crisis in Syria by guaranteeing TPS status to all peaceful Syrians who make it to the U.S. It’s important to note that TPS is not a green card and cannot lead toward citizenship. Furthermore, any war criminals or individuals affiliated with criminal or terrorist activity would be excluded. TPS status could be a game-changer for Syrians and it could be done just by changing a few words in the U.S. code.

This sounds simple, but there will undoubtedly be questions about the results of such a move. How will the Syrians fare once they are in the United States? The answer: pretty well.

Syrian refugees would not burden the welfare state, since they would only have access to public education for their children and Emergency Medical Assistance. In fact, they’d likely find work, which is the best vehicle toward cultural and economic integration. According to a government report in 2010, 58 percent of recent adult refugees were employed — a rate higher than the U.S. born population. In Sweden, by contrast, only 30 percent of all immigrants are working even after they’ve been in the country several years.

Syrians in particular have proven successful in the U.S. Americans of Syrian descent have an average income of $56,000 and 66 percent of Syrian adults are in the workforce – higher than the 63 percent for U.S.-born Americans.

Allowing Syrians to get TPS upon landing in America is a cheap and effective way for Congress to limit the scale of the humanitarian disaster in Syria. President Obama and Congress’ interest in Syria is likely fleeting and focused primarily on WMDs, but the violence isn’t. TPS is already keeping some Syrians out of harm’s way. It’s time that Congress allows TPS to save more lives.

Open Borders note: See also Paul Crider’s blog post Taking our humanitarian impulses seriously.

The photograph of Syrian refugee children in Jordan that appears above this post was taken by Russell Watkins, and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution licence.

One thought on “America Can Aid Syrians Without Military Intervention”

  1. This kind of advocacy is low-hanging fruit. When the US is considering military action in Syria, a country where we don’t have much at stakes except our feeling that we just can’t tolerate certain kinds of atrocities when we might, sort of, have the military power to stop it, it’s clear that there’s some altruism towards foreigners in play here. Good. So why not help foreigners in a cheaper and much less morally risky way? Humanitarian ends can be achieved without killing anyone.

    Of course, a generous refugee policy can lead to ironies, in that the compensation given to certain victims is something that much of the world would envy. It’s like distributing caviar to the homeless. Refugee policy always creates troublesome incentives, e.g., to allege persecution or danger simply to get access to a rich country. Thus, I’ve heard that many Russians pretended to be Jews in order to emigrate to Israel in the late 1980s and the 1990s. I’m not sure whether that’s a problem, exactly, but it’s an anomaly.

    One solution is complete open borders. Under open borders, Syrians wouldn’t have to get special permission to enter via Temporary Protected Status, and they wouldn’t get their victim status converted into an enviable privilege. They’d have the same right to immigrate to the US as everyone else had. I support that, but it’s clearly a remote goal.

    But it also seems possible to realize the “right to emigrate” without opening the borders of rich countries to all and sundry. It would involve the creation of a global archipelago of passport-free charter cities. These might be run by the World Bank or some coalition of aid agencies, and they’d be located on the territory of developing countries who would agree to a partial alienation of sovereignty for a few decades, in hopes that the world will then build a thriving modern metropolis, full of opportunities for the country’s citizens, and eventually reverting to the full sovereign control of the country. Aid, trade and migration privileges, and military alliances might also be included in a package of inducements to get countries to agree to the deal. The inspiration would be the experience of Hong Kong, which, while under foreign (British) rule, catalyzed rapid development in southeastern China.

    Catoites probably won’t entirely like my idea of a global archipelago of World Bank-run charter cities, as it seems vaguely imperialist and involves aid agencies which they don’t like. But perhaps they’d welcome it as an alternative to intervention in Iraq, Libya, Syria, etc. And if the miniature polities that it created proved as libertarian as Hong Kong, that might be worth celebrating.

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